Ash Center: In His Own Words: Brian Hull, HKS MPP '12, Researches Workforce Development Reforms in Providence, RI

March 1, 2012
Ash Center: In His Own Words: Brian Hull, HKS MPP '12, Researches Workforce Development Reforms in Providence, RI
Providence construction worker learns new skills at training center

By Brian Hull, HKS MPP 2012

During the summer of 2011, I worked with the city of Providence to write part one of a multi-part series of reports on workforce training and placement programs in Rhode Island. Improving the employment opportunities for the city’s residents is a priority for Mayor Angel Taveras. As such, I had the full support of his office and worked closely with Policy Director Matt Stark, and the Director of the Pathways to Opportunity Office Natalie Lopes. Rhode Island has the third highest unemployment rate in the nation, and its capital city, Providence, has one of the worst unemployment rates in the Northeast (around 15 percent). Less than half of the city’s population over the age of 24 has any post-secondary education, and one-quarter of adults lack a high school education.

Fundamentally, the employed and unemployed workers in Providence with less education are increasingly finding themselves in precarious economic situations. They face low or poverty wages, job insecurity, and limited opportunities for advancement into lucrative careers. One key in turning this situation around is increasing the skill level of Providence’s residents though a coordinated workforce development and literacy training system.

The report that I drafted covered the current impact and future potential of Workforce Investment Act (WIA) Title I funding for the local Workforce Investment Board, Workforce Solutions. I reviewed the various reporting requirements and performance measures at each level of government—federal, state, and local—to see where there is flexibility to better serve low-skilled, low-literacy, and other hard-to-employ populations. The report describes possible program changes that could be made to enable greater impact for Providence’s unemployed residents. This work was executed to support the Relevant Integrated Skills and Education Strategy (RISES) created by the City of Providence.

The work itself involved a great amount of research, reading, and interpretation of policy guidance announcements. While the research itself was not terribly difficult, a significant challenge for innovative workforce development solutions stems from the program’s structure. Using federal funds to better serve low-skilled workers would involve the transformation of various federal workforce development programs. The program's focus of short-term training and quick reemployment fails to account for the demands of high-growth and highly-skilled industries, nor does it keep pace with a rapidly changing employment environment. The performance measures and the provision of individual training (rather than group training) make it difficult for Providence to use Title I funds for low-skilled, low-literacy individuals who fair less well in post-training employment outcomes.

The work that I was engaged in during the summer was a critically important piece of the larger effort that will be undertaken for my Policy Analysis Exercise. During my second year at Harvard Kennedy School, I am expanding upon this report and assisting the relevant state and city agencies (Department of Labor and Training, Governor’s Workforce Board, Department of Education, and both local workforce investment boards) in moving towards a more aligned system of workforce development training and placement based on the following principles:

        • Public training dollars must be better aligned with employer needs.

        • The gap in skills between what employers need and what Providence (and Rhode Island’s) unemployed are capable of providing is substantial.

        • Literacy levels of the unemployed are a critical barrier and are best addressed through literacy programs that are executed in the context of technical occupational skills training.

      • Workforce training expenditures are more effective when coordinated with access to public benefits (food stamps, transportation subsidies, etc.) and income supports (Earned Income Tax Credit).

As Matt Stark likes to say, we need to move away from a system of “Train and Pray.” My work during the summer was a small but meaningful contribution to the larger work that is yet to be completed. By providing a thorough evaluation of the WIA Title I funding system, stakeholders at the city and state level have a resource to use when determining how various federal funding streams can be blended to better serve the hard-to-employ. As I continue this work during my second year at HKS, I hope that it can guide future state and local investment of training and adult education dollars in the city and statewide.

Brian Hull, HKS MPP 2012, was a Ash Summer Fellow in Innovation during the summer of 2011.